A study out this summer could hammer another nail into the coffin of red-light cameras, whose use in Denton have come under fire in recent months.
Researchers from a Cleveland university launched the nationwide study in 2015. It included a focus on Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Examining 12 years of crash data from the Texas Department of Transportation, economics professor Justin Gallagher and a colleague found that while the cameras did reduce the number of angle crashes — such as T-bone crashes — the cameras led to an overall increase in other types of accidents, such as fender-benders.
The study, titled "Criminal Deterrence When There are Offsetting Risks: Traffic Cameras, Vehicular Accidents, and Public Safety," claims that when people understand there is a red-light camera present at an intersection, drivers slam on their brakes more often to avoid the fines. That, Gallagher said, reveals that people are conscious of the money they could lose but are not particularly more aware of other drivers or nearby pedestrians.
“There is no evidence that the program led to an improvement of public safety,” Gallagher said of the statewide data. He said the only change when a red-light camera was present was the probability someone would be caught increases; the probability a person would avoid a crash did not.
People have criticized red-light cameras as being avenues for cities to make money rather than improve public safety. Others say they reduce angle crashes, which is a net positive for public safety.
Reports from the Denton Record-Chronicle revealed three Denton police supervisors had been making tens of thousand of dollars while working overtime to review the cameras’ footage. Police subsequently changed its policy to allow other officers to take part in the review process.
That sparked the Denton City Council to debate the city’s use of red-light cameras. The council decided in May to postpone any action until after the city’s contract with its vendor expires in July 2019. Last year, the city raked in about $2.3 million from drivers whose alleged violations were caught by one of the cameras. After expenses, the city profited about $668,000.
Violations caught by the red-light cameras are civil penalties that do not count against one’s criminal record. Even if someone does not pay the ticket, no arrest warrant is issued, nor will it count against their driving record.
There are 13 red-light cameras across Denton, stationed at 11 intersections. The city has been in contract with Redflex Traffic Systems since 2005. Denton’s crash data shows fatal and injury crashes fell at six of the 11 intersections over a five-year period after their installation. The remaining intersections saw either no change or an increase in fatal or injury crashes in that same period.
Gallagher, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University who has studied social issues, says he first took notice of red-light cameras being an issue in Ohio a couple of years ago, when the state Legislature was considering a new regulatory approach to the cameras’ use.
He noticed most of the studies that provided context to the discussion were done by engineers or engineering firms, which is a problem, Gallagher said, because those rely on weighted averages that largely avoid the nuances of human behavior.
The professor said he hopes people will understand that while the presence of red-light cameras do decrease cross-traffic crashes, there are other elements to consider. He said these cameras are not totally ineffective, they just do not work toward the right solutions.
He recommends city officials look at how to improve the safety of intersections overall, using the cameras as a tool rather than an outright solution.